I played through a couple of older PlayStation games this week that I’d never gotten around to beating before, and I was surprised by how similar they were in theme and tone.
The first was “Ico,” a Japanese-developed PlayStation 2 classic. The other was “Journey,” a PlayStation 3 indie game hit. Despite their different origins and stories, both have plenty in common. Both gave me a surprisingly introspective consideration of life and death.
Spoilers abound for both games, so be warned.
“Ico” is the fantasy story of a horned boy who tries to escape a mysterious castle with a strange girl who doesn’t speak his language. At the game’s beginning, Ico is locked in a cell—presumably to be sacrificed for having horns—but he quickly escapes. He soon finds the girl, Yorda, trapped in a cage and decides to free her. Ico battles dark spirits and solves puzzles while guiding the girl toward freedom.
The short game doesn’t contain much dialog, but actions speak louder than words. It’s clear from how Ico holds Yorda’s hand to how he defends her from evil beasts that he cares for her.
As the game reaches its climax, Ico manages to escape the castle, but Yorda is captured by her mother, a dark queen. Ico decides to venture back to save Yorda, and along the way he finds her petrified in preparation for the queen to transfer her spirit into Yorda’s body in order to live forever.
Despite the queen’s warning that Yorda is dead regardless, Ico battles and defeats the queen, grievously injuring himself in the process. The frozen Yorda suddenly reanimates, becoming as dark as her vanquished mother. She carries Ico to a boat and sends him to the sea as the castle crumbles around her and the credits roll.
After the credits, Ico washes up on a bright beach. He walks down the shore for a bit before finding Yorda in her white, natural form resting in the sand. She moves her fingers and speaks, and the game ends.
Despite the happy ending, it’s my belief that both Ico and Yorda died in the game—Ico when he fought the queen and Yorda when she was petrified. I think them washing up on a white beach was symbolism for them finding each other in the afterlife. How else do you explain Yorda escaping a collapsing castle in the middle of the sea and turning back into her original form after being consumed by darkness?
Ico had no reason to save Yorda and ultimately sacrifice himself in a quest to save her. Maybe it was his good nature that compelled him to guide and protect her. Or maybe, like many of us, he didn’t want to face the frightening reality of life without a friend to rely on.
Ico and Yorda might have died in their quest for freedom, but being with each other is what made trying worthwhile in the first place.
Similar things can be said of “Journey,” which features just as mysterious a story. You play as a silent, robed creature who, for whatever reason, is trying to make it to the top of a mountain looming on the horizon.
During my playthrough, I found myself surprised at how quickly I grew attached to the mysterious other player who randomly joined my game. Without even a name to identify him, we communicated by pressing buttons to chirp at one another and solved puzzles together.
Things grew more dangerous as the game progressed. Enemies pursued us, and as we began to ascend the mountain, we were battered by wind and snow. Eventually, we both succumbed to the cold and collapsed before miraculously being revived to finish the last leg of our journey.
As we reached the mountaintop, our screen grew white, and the credits played out. We turned into twinkling lights and watched as the sparkles flew across the sky, playing our journey out in reverse, until we reached the desert we started in. After experiencing what can only be described as our characters’ demises, our journey ended where it began.
Similar to “Ico,” “Journey” felt a lot like an analogy for life and death. My character was headed toward an unknown goal for no other reason than it was there, and while what happens on the mountaintop is never explicitly stated, it’s the path getting there that mattered.
In other words, my character’s quest for meaning created the meaning he was after all along.
And, such as with “Ico,” I wasn’t alone. As they do in real life, others joined me in my journey. That made the quests all the more endearing and meaningful.
The tired cliché rings true: It’s not the destination but the journey, and those you meet and touch along the way that matter. Both “Ico” and “Journey” articulate this beautifully.
This article originally appeared on Jake Magee’s GazetteXtra gaming column, Press Start.